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12 October 2012
Let’s face it: elite athletes have a good life. Sure, you have to train hard but then there’s all of the benefits that arise from physical training. You become fit and healthy for one thing, then there’s the adoration, the spectacular remuneration (depending on your sport), and the fact that you probably will never have to pay for a cup of coffee again. In reality of course, there is no such thing as a free cup of coffee and professional sportspeople have to contend with constant pressure to perform. Now according to a new study, even that pressure may have been eased since it seems that just squeezing a ball might help with performance under pressure.
“Choking” is the term applied when athletes falter under pressure and perform at levels less than they are capable of. It manifests as a kick hooked to the left, a putt left short of the hole, or a serve hit low into the net.
In this experiment semi-professional soccer players took six penalty shots during a practice session. The next day they came back to do the same thing but this time before a packed crowd waiting to watch another match. Before the second performance some players squeezed a ball with their right hand while others squeezed a ball with their left hand. Those who used their left hand did just as well as they had done during practice while those who used their right hand choked and missed more shots when the crowd was watching.
In a second experiment judo experts performed a series of kicks into a bag during practice and then did the kicks again having been told they would be videotaped for evaluation. Those who had squeezed a ball with their left hand did better under pressure than during practice while those who squeezed with their right hand did worse.
Finally, badminton players did a series of practise serves and then were told they would be videotaped for a second series of serves. Again, left handed squeezers did well whereas right-handed squeezers cracked under the pressure of observation.
So what is going on here?
It is important to remember first that your left hemisphere controls the right side of your body and vice versa for the right hemisphere and left side. We also know that rumination is a function of the left side of the brain and that rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks.
It seems then that using your right hand activates your left hemisphere which in turn reduces your performance of tasks that are well practised and should require little conscious thought. Athletes under pressure may be focussing too much on thinking about their movements rather than trusting their skills. As an example, thinking about balance can actually produce imbalance. So using your left hand activates the right side of your brain and reduces activity in the ruminating part of the brain allowing for automatic skills to be expressed. It is important to note that all subjects in these studies were right-handed.
This might be useful for elderly people who are afraid of falling and focus too much on their movements. Right handed elderly folk might improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs. Of course, if you want to know who to back in a soccer penalty shoot-out look for the team who don’t look like they are thinking about things too much or have their left fists clenched.